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WR Jones Back To His Old Self

The old adage says NFL players make their biggest strides from their first year to their second, and receiver James Jones was on track to do just that in 2008. But in the midst of an impressive sophomore training camp, Jones sprained his right knee, and the injury became a source of angst and frustration all season long for Jones and the Packers.


The old adage says NFL players make their biggest strides from their first year to their second, and receiver James Jones was on track to do just that in 2008.

In the midst of an impressive sophomore training camp, Jones began the preseason with that memorable touchdown catch on national television against Cincinnati, when he absorbed a big hit over the middle, lost his helmet, and stayed on his feet to run into the end zone.

By early in the third quarter of the third preseason game at Denver, Jones already had seven receptions, second on the team at that point to Donald Driver.

It looked as though topping his impressive rookie numbers of 47 catches for 676 yards would be a matter of course in Jones' second year out of San Jose State. But it wasn't to be.

In the second half of that game against Denver, Jones sprained his right knee. Not thought to be a serious injury at the time, that knee became a source of angst all season long for Jones and the Packers.

"Stressful, frustrating, all those big words," Jones said. "All those words you can imagine."

Simply put, Jones' knee was never quite right. Whether he pushed too hard to come back too fast or underestimated the severity of the injury, or both, the bottom line was Jones couldn't perform the way he and the coaching staff expected him to, and - strange as it may sound - his inexperience with being injured played a factor.

"It was something he had never experienced, and he had problems with it," receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. "I think it was tough on him mentally, and it kind of changed him as a person a little bit, and he'd say the same, because of not having really been hurt at any level, Pop Warner all the way through college."

Jones missed the first game of the season but came back to make four catches, including a TD reception, in Week 2 at Detroit. But then in Week 3 against Dallas, he caught a pass on the first series of the game, banged his knee on the turf and was done for the night.

That made it hard for the coaching staff to trust that he could be counted on to play an entire game, and he was inactive for four of the next five contests, catching just one pass in Week 5 against Atlanta.

"It frustrated him, the fact that he could never get it right," Robinson said. "Every time he went back out there he'd seem to have a relapse or something where he landed on his knee again and it felt funny or went dead on him. It was a whole new thing for him to experience, and we're hoping, he is more than anybody, that that's all behind him."

Jones started to put it behind him toward the end of last season. After being inactive one final time at New Orleans in Week 13, Jones caught at least two passes in each of the final five games to finish the season with 20 receptions for 274 yards.

His redemptive performance came in Week 15 at Jacksonville, when he had catches of 46, 40 and 34 yards, by far his three longest of the season. He finished that game with four receptions for 132 yards, a career high and his second career 100-yard game.

Thus far, Jones seems to have carried over his strong finish into 2009. Declaring himself fully healthy for the offseason program, Jones didn't miss any on-field time during OTAs or mini-camp and looked like he was back to his old self, using his 6-foot-1, 208-pound frame to shield defenders from the ball and make tough catches over the middle.

"I'm healthy now so I'm just going out there trying to get back to myself and make the plays that I know I can make and just have fun," Jones said.

"Last year was rough. I really couldn't play like myself all year. It really is a fresh start. I'm healthy and all that again, just going out there getting a feel for it, making some plays. Running around finally without any pain feels good."

{sportsad300}With Greg Jennings and Driver entrenched as the top two wideouts, Jones and second-year pro Jordy Nelson should stage an intriguing battle for the No. 3 spot. Nelson took advantage of Jones' down time last season and put up some impressive rookie numbers of his own, catching 33 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns.

Whether he becomes the third or fourth receiver in the rotation this year, Jones is by no means a finished product. He didn't fully progress in his second season because of the injury, so some of those second-year strides should come this year, along with a bit more polish to his game.

"He's a big body, and he's a very, very strong, physically well-built guy for the position," Robinson said. "He's got rare strength for that position, and he's got great hands. James has as good a (pair of) hands as anybody I've seen. He's got to combine that with the focus and the route-running and the little things that go into making you a complete receiver."

Provided he stays healthy, Jones should be able to do that. If he sustains another injury, he'll in all likelihood be better equipped to handle it now. But obviously the goal is to not have to deal with injuries at all, and like any player, that's when Jones can be at his best.

"I haven't seen any indication that he's not totally back to normal and totally healthy and ready to take up where he left off when he got hurt," Robinson said. "I think he's a man with a mission right now to prove that last year was not him."

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